Meth Treatment

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Maybe they're on the road to recovery. But it's hard not to go back when their friends start calling again.

"A lot of people go right back to their old playpens," Lucas says.

And those are the ones who make it to inpatient treatment in the first place.

A big problem, on a practical level, is that meth addicts often hit rock bottom much more quickly than drunks. Don Nichols is CEO of the Arizona Treatment Institute in Casa Grande, which does intensive outpatient treatment.

Alcoholics who come for treatment are typically employed, Nichols says, which means they can opt for a month's stay covered by insurance.

That's not true of meth users.

"Most of them are not going to be working by the time they come to treatment," he says.

For the truly indigent, the Arizona Department of Health Services provides treatment -- in Maricopa County, there are about 400 meth addicts under the care of ValueOptions.

In recent years, the department has seen the number of meth users in its system explode, says Christina Dye, the clinical services division chief. It's now working to tailor treatment for those people.

But there just isn't money to do everything they'd like.

For example: Dye's division is devoting more than $2 million in 2006 to train its substance abuse providers under a system pioneered by the California-based Matrix Institute.

Thanks to its clinic in San Bernardino County, an area popular with bikers and thereby a longtime crystal meth hot spot, Matrix has carefully studied meth addiction. Its directors understand the challenges of keeping meth addicts coming to outpatient treatment.

Rehab depicted in the movies typically shows alcoholics working through family issues and confronting, say, their absent father. But Matrix associate director Michael McCann says his program determined that didn't work for outpatient therapy.

"If you take people this fragile and send them home after a session like that, more often than not, they're going to dive back into using again," McCann says.

Instead, the focus is on cognitive behavior skills. Learning to think differently. Learning to take control.

"The key," McCann says, "is often just making sure they come back the next time."

But despite the program's success, the health department won't be able to roll out training for it statewide in 2006, Dye says.

In fact, the division didn't receive any new funding to pay for it. It had to "find" the $2 million it plans to spend by cutting in other areas. And that's only enough for four pilot areas.

Maricopa and Pima counties were fortunate to be one of them. Addicts in Flagstaff aren't so lucky.

Alishia Hight used meth for the first time when she was 12, and by the time she should have graduated high school, she was a mess: Dating loser older guys because they had drugs. Staying up for days on end. Shooting the stuff straight into her veins.

"I didn't know how to drive, so I'd walk around people's neighborhoods and steal stuff from their cars," she admits.

A slender blonde with a quick smile, she's come far enough that brutal honesty is easy. "Every job I'd get, I'd lose because of drugs."

Then she got booked on a series of felonies -- all related to drug possession, but enough of them to be serious.

It wasn't her first brush with the law, but it was the first time the court gave her a choice: inpatient rehab or jail.

It was probably only because she was five months pregnant. (State health department guidelines give pregnant women priority for substance abuse treatment.)

But it worked.

She originally thought she'd be stuck in New Arizona Family for just 30 days. After she got there, though, they told her she was staying put until the baby was born. And so she did, and then she stayed for another five months.

In rehab, she learned the things she'd missed in her years of snorting and shooting. She learned how to live.

In jail, she'd heard other girls talking about getting their babies back from Child Protective Services. She thought about the kids she'd seen, hanging around, while she and her friends were snorting meth.

She decided that wouldn't be her kid.

"I wanted my little boy to have slumber parties, and perfect Christmases," she says. "He wasn't going to miss out.

"And so I decided I was done."

She's stayed clean. Two years after her son was born, she married a guy who had also stopped using meth.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske